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It’s been over a century since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 threw open the doors of the Law Society and Inns of Court, allowing women to become lawyers and pursue legal careers. However, change doesn’t happen overnight and for the past 100 years, women have been fighting to claim their place within the legal sector.

Research we conducted earlier this year shows that 40% of managers across the legal industry believe the sector still struggles with a lack of gender diversity. 58% say the industry is suffering from a growing skills gap, with 49% claiming the solution is increased diversity across the profession. The issue spans further than just gender as 54% of managers believing there’s a lack of racial diversity in their business, and 37% extending this to age.

James Franklin, director at Search Consultancy’s Legal division commented on the need for diversity within the sector:

“Within the legal sector, the firms which value unique ideas and perspectives are typically the best performers. A diverse team expands the ways a business can approach problems and achieve solutions, it also allows them to attract and retain the industry’s best talent.”

The current state of the industry

The 1920s were filled with fears women would immediately take over the legal sector, but they didn’t become a prominent part of the industry until the 1990s. Over the past 30 years, women have become a driving force representing 60% of entrants into the solicitor profession, becoming the largest majority of practising solicitors since 2017. Despite this, only 28% of partners in private practices are female.

Furthermore, research conducted by The Times found that while the UK’s top ten legal firms made a combined £14 billion in 2018, they had a widening gender pay gap. The national median is 9.6%, but figures from the biggest firms suggest women are being paid 43% less than their male counterparts, marking an increase on the year before.

Many firms were also criticised for excluding partners from their reports. Arguing they shouldn’t be included on the basis that equity partners aren’t salaried employee, this omission saw many high-earning men excluded from public report. As a result, the data doesn’t fully reflect the state of the sector, meaning many firms look more equal than they are.

How has COVID-19 impacted gender diversity

The pandemic forced legal firms to close their offices and experts to begin working from home.The European Institute for Gender Equality found that flexible working arrangements can increase gender-equal opportunities. However, as COVID-19 forced schools to close, time that could be dedicated to working was impacted by familial responsibilities.

The IFS and UCL Institute for Education surveyed 3,500 families with opposite gender parents to discover how domestic responsibilities and paid work have been shared during the various lockdowns. The result showed fathers had taken on an increased share of childcare, but the time remained 2.3 hours less than mothers. While this research spanned every industry, its findings are relevant to the legal sector:

“Mothers in two-parent households are only doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers.”

The report also found that mothers are more likely to be interrupted during working hours than fathers. 47% of mothers’ hours were split between work and other activities such as childcare. In comparison, only 30% of fathers’ hours suffered the same fate. This showed that through the various lockdowns, it’s women who have sacrificed more of their career.

This is supported when looking at job losses. When compared to fathers, mothers are 47% more likely to have lost their job or quit, and 14% more likely to be furloughed, whether this if necessary furlough or in some cases requested.

The impact of the pandemic has raised concerns regarding the mental wellbeing of women across the UK as well as employment and education opportunities that could be lost. Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, was quoted in a BBC article saying:

"Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year."

Alongside the more recent effects, there are also longstanding issues preventing women from progressing to higher roles such as partner. Research from the University of Bristol and Essex found women suffer economically and often experience no progression as a result of new childcare responsibilities.

The study undertaken by the universities followed over 3,500 new parents. Three years after childbirth, only 27.8% of women were still in full-time work or self-employed, compared to 90% of men. Additionally, 26% of men were promoted or moved to a better job in the following five years, as opposed to 13% of women.

In reality, maternity leave only represents a small portion of an employee’s time within the job market. Providing a small period of flexibility to new parents can generate new levels of loyalty among staff, especially as women within the firm see maternity leave won’t affect their progression.

"This loss in work experience, and in particular full-time work experience, is an important part of the explanation for the gender pay gap and suggests women still suffer economically as a result of taking on childcare responsibilities."

"Worryingly, it appears that women who return to employment typically see their chance of moving up the occupational ladder decrease."

"Women who return to the same employer risk becoming stuck in their job roles with limited career progression."

The benefits of increased diversity

Diversity in the legal sector is essential to meet the requirements of an equally diverse client base. When brought together, individuals with different backgrounds are able to complement each others skills, build upon each strength, and supplement weaknesses. Alongside this, a diverse team also provides a variety of methodologies, innovating the way a firm approaches an issue.

By promoting diversity across the legal sector, organisations can gain a broader understanding of the world around them. This allows organisations to adapt accordingly when presented with unfamiliar situations and provide an all-around higher quality of service to each client.

While gender is an area that needs improving, it plays just one part in a broader issue. Other examples of the diversity which needs to be considered by legal firms include:

·        Sex

·        Gender Identity

·        Race

·        Ethnicity

·        Sexual Diversity

·        Socioeconomic Backgrounds

·        Neurotypical

Is the industry doing enough to tackle the gender imbalance?

To truly improve gender diversity, change has to come from within the legal sector. The past 30 years have seen the industry make some positive leaps with over half of emerging solicitors now female. However, this representation isn’t mirrored at more senior levels in private practices.

It is also important to consider in-house legal departments which are showing a more positive outlook. Back in 2019, 170 general counsels and chief legal officers signed an open letter providing an ultimatum to the big law firms, improve diversity or lose our business. Backed by major companies such as Heineken USA, Lyft, and Google Fiber, the letter shows how committed the legal sector is in closing the gender diversity gap.

One section of the letter reads:

“We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation. We sincerely hope that you and your firm will be among those that demonstrate this commitment”

Whilst 60% of entrants into the solicitor profession are female, these figures fall by more than half when reaching more senior roles. There’s a distinct level in which women disappear, especially after having children. Until the issues surrounding flexibility are addressed, women in the legal sector can be too easily held back. Unfortunately, the risk of career stagnation has been exacerbated by lockdowns, school closures and the responsibility divide between parents.

While the industry has taken steps to close the gender gap, there’s still a long way to go. Across the FTSE100, only 22% of GCs are women. The legal sector supports diversifying the highest levels, but in its current state, it might not be doing enough.

What can be done to encourage change?

While lockdown has presented plenty of challenges for the legal sector, it’s also shown how quickly it can adapt to sudden, unprecedented change. For men and women to have equal opportunities, the work culture needs to change and create an environment where both can thrive.

Change has to be implemented throughout the business, starting from the top. Many businesses have already shown they can adapt with international firms such as Baker McKenzie already implementing agile working.

If the sector wants to make its top roles more accessible, it can begin with some simple steps:

·        Instigate flexible working policies

·        Encourage salary negotiation

·        Use skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment

·        Set internal targets

·        Encourage the uptake of Shared Parental Leave

·        Lead from the top by example

·        Implement strong recruitment and selection processes 

·        Encourage staff, especially men, to be champions for change

·        Take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment

·        Establish targets and quotas to rebalance inequalities

·        Create a values-based business and development network

As female legal professionals firmly set their sights on the top roles, the future looks like it could make the gender disparity a thing of the past. Many firms we work with are already actively making the right decisions and supporting women in their business, but it’s clear more needs to be done to completely balance the scales. It took 100 years to get to this stage, and if all stakeholders within the sector collaborate to incite change, it shouldn’t take 100 more to create a truly representative picture.

Search Consultancy are multi-disciplined recruitment experts who have operated throughout the legal sector for over 25 years. Whether you’re looking to take the next step in your career, or you need to find industry-leading talent, get in touch today and find out how they can help.